As if Human Rights Minister Riaz Pirzada’s callous statement attributing grievances of the families of the missing Baloch people to ‘tribal systems’ wasn’t enough, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah publicly acknowledged his government’s helplessness by saying that no legislation can resolve the issue of enforced disappearances. These two statements, issued within a week, reflect that the coalition government is just as incapable of addressing the grave issue of enforced disappearances as its predecessor.
In a comically ironic turn of events, an anti-enforced disappearance bill presented by then human rights minister Shireen Mazari during the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government mysteriously ‘disappeared’ in January after its passage from the National Assembly. The former minister later claimed that she was summoned by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) for introducing the bill. Mazari’s sudden concern for missing persons, observers say, has little to do with her party’s position on the matter and is linked with the PTI’s anger over the ‘neutrals’ withdrawing their support to the party. Pakistan’s establishment is accused of having a role in these abductions, and the former minister appeared to be settling scores with the establishment by bringing up an issue that is considered a ‘red line’.
TFT Editor and journalist Razå Rumi says that the hypocrisy of the former human rights minister was exposed when she made a public declaration about how she was summoned by the ISI when the legislation on missing persons was passed.
“Unfortunately, this confession came too late in the day only when her party was ousted through a vote of no confidence, for which the PTI blamed the army leadership,” he adds.
Rumi further stated that such after-the-event declarations do not help the cause of missing persons and human rights in Pakistan. “When civilian leaders are in power, their commitment to uphold the fundamental rights under the constitution are tenuous.”
Rise in cases of ‘short-term’ disappearances
A pattern whereby individuals are abducted for a few hours or days and then released following outrage and condemnation from national and international rights watchdogs has been observed in Pakistan lately.
In 2017, UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances noted the prevalence of short-term disappearances in various countries, describing it as “the unacknowledged deprivation of liberty which puts the individual concerned outside the protection of the law for a limited amount of time”. This trend of ‘short-term disappearances’ appears to have become rampant in Pakistan over the past two years. The recent case of activist Arsalan Khan is one example, and Baloch activists and students are the most common victims of this type of disappearance.
In some cases, individuals are forcibly picked up and their arrest is declared after a few days. In activist Arsalan Khan’s case, his detention was acknowledged by Rangers hours after he was picked up from his home under mysterious circumstances. No one knew what had happened to him before the declaration of his arrest.
Baloch student of Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, Hafeez Baloch, was recently released after being acquitted by an anti-terrorism court. He was abducted in a similar manner on February 8 this year and on March 30, his abduction was later shown as an arrest in a terrorism case that was surprisingly registered against him during his captivity.
This means that between Feb 8 and March 30 when the FIR was made public, no one knew where Hafeez Baloch was. Baloch’s lawyer Imaan Mazari confirmed to Friday Times that even though the FIR is from 15 March, no one knew about it till the 30th.
Several similar cases have been recently witnessed, and the present government – despite having promised to address the grievances of missing persons’ families – remains unconcerned and/or unable to resolve the issue.
Worse, the families and friends of missing persons protesting for their recovery face the state’s high-handedness.
Last month, a peaceful sit-in in Karachi by Baloch activists and families of missing persons was disrupted by the Sindh police, who began attacking the protesters unprovoked. The men were beaten with batons, while the women were dragged and pushed into police vans.
Among the women protesters was the pregnant sister-in-law of one of the abducted students, who was also dragged by female police officers.
Earlier in March, Islamabad police registered a sedition case against MNA Mohsin Dawar and Imaan Mazari as well as several students who participated in a protest against racial profiling and surveilling of Baloch students at universities in Islamabad.
Although the police were instructed by Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah not to act against anyone named in the FIR, the development was a reminder that the state wants to silence those protesting disappearances.
Can victims of enforced disappearance lead a normal life after being released?
Lawyer Imaan Mazari who handles the cases of heirs of missing persons says that the most common outcome of an abduction is silence. “Even those who dare to speak and have explained, in great detail, what was done to them and by whom, there is impunity. So, then others inevitably ask: why should we speak?” she says.
In nearly all the relatively high-profile abductions in the past few months —or at least the ones that generated the most social media ruckus, the state appeared missing in action. Citizens on social media tweeted hashtags upon hashtag into oblivion demanding the authorities recover the abductees.
The state’s apathy and/or failure to do something about this impunity means that even when the abducted individuals are released, they are forever-silenced and have to discontinue their activism or any other political activity that may have been a reason for their abduction.
They are sometimes also forced to take extreme measures to direct the authorities’ attention, as in the case of activist Arsalan Khan, who went on a hunger strike to demand justice. He said that the accusations of treason leveled against him would destroy his career and make him unable to earn a livelihood and support his children.
PPP leader acknowledges government’s ‘disastrous’ response
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Farhatullah Babar admits that the response of the coalition government, of which his party is a part, has been disastrous. He says the recent remarks by Pirzada and Sanaullah amount to not only the utter helplessness of the government, but also to basically condoning disappearances.
Referring to Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s recent trip to Balochistan, where on the topic of enforced disappearances he apologetically said he will ‘raise the issue with powerful quarters’, Farhatullah Babar thinks the PM should have at least condemned the disappearances.
“When the PM appears to speak apologetically during the honeymoon period of premiership it sends a chill down the spine of the families of victims of enforced disappearances,” he said.
He says that while the government’s decision to appoint a ministerial committee for enforced disappearances is a welcome step, there is still reason to hold our breaths. He says ultimately this step was taken because of an Islamabad High Court order, as opposed to the government’s own initiative.
‘Ending enforced disappearances would mean standing up to the establishment’
When in opposition, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz spoke out for missing persons on various occasions and also chided the then government for ignoring their plight. The fact that after assuming power PML-N has proved to be no different from the previous government over this issue might mean civilian governments do not call the shots. But is this excuse enough to absolve the coalition government of its failure?
Farhatullah Babar says their inability to recover missing persons is unpardonable. “The political parties owe an explanation to the victims and the nation for their failure.” This behavior, he says, only gives rise to suspicions that political leaders are unable to stand up because of skeletons in their own closets, which make them vulnerable to blackmailing.
“The political parties must be ready to take the bull by its horns,” he says, adding, “There is so much evidence available from the record of the proceedings in the courts and in the parliament and other evidence that the elephant in the room is that state agencies are not accountable and not subjected to any legislation.”
While the courts have issued several rulings asking the authorities to put an end to the practice of enforced disappearances, there is little accountability.
Imaan Mazari says we have seen strong judgments from the Supreme Court and high courts on enforced disappearances, but even the constitutional courts have shied away from holding the real perpetrators accountable.
“Perhaps part of the reason for this is that even slightly scathing judgments on the role of the armed forces and intelligence agencies in the practice have, till date, not been implemented,” she added.
‘Bring intelligence agencies under the mandate of the law’
The reason behind the continued disappearances is a three pronged one, in Farhatullah’s opinion.
Firstly, the state intelligence agencies, especially the ISI, are not subject to any law. He says until the intelligence agencies are brought under the mandate of the law, making new legislation to criminalize enforced disappearances won’t make a difference.
Secondly, the commission on enforced disappearances has failed miserably. Farhatullah says it should be disbanded and a new one should be set up, as out of the thousands of cases of enforced disappearances, there has not been even a single prosecution of a perpetrator.
And thirdly, the political parties have also failed. A thorough examination is needed regarding who can really walk the talk, grow a spine and forget about their own selfish ambitions for a second, he says.
Dialogue with the establishment to address the issue
Farhatullah Babar suggests a way forward: “In December 2015, the Senate committee of the whole made nearly half a dozen proposals to address the issue,” he said, adding that the government was required to either implement them or explain to the parliament why it cannot implement them. He says the framework for the dialogue is still there but the will to implement it is lacking.
He also recommended that the newly formed ministerial committee should invite some of the victims of enforced disappearances and hear them out. If the establishment needs some reassurance, the dialogue can be held on camera and not in public. But the authorities need to show some commitment to moving the conversation forward. Because the victims won’t speak out on their own; they are too frightened of the possibility of another abduction. But the committee needs to provide them the security to be able to speak up about their abductors.